Scenes From the Classroom Struggle

‘O’ Emerges From the Post-Columbine Teenage Wasteland

In many respects, the current crop remains faithful to the template provided by the mother of all avenging-teen movies, Massacre at Central High (1976), Rene Daalder's deliriously abstract boobs-and-explosions B movie, in which not a single adult is spotted until the last reel. The plot is straightforward, and in its gallows-humor way, prophetic. Boy moves to new school, renews preexisting close bond with one of the popular guys. New boy is nonetheless victimized by bullies; kills bullies on behalf of himself and the other unpopular kids. The unpopular kids, no longer oppressed, begin bullying each other; new boy kills them off too. The insanity halts only when a high school bombing is narrowly averted (a denouement homaged in 1989's Heathers).

Massacre's point and essence was giddy, guilt-free slash-and-burn, but for realist dramas, the fine line between honest reflection and wanton exploitation is always a sticking point. The boundary is further blurred when the idea of provocation is introduced. Certainly O never would have sat on a shelf for so long if Miramax executives hadn't feared that some heartland kid would mimic Hugo's labyrinthine plot against Odin. Telling it like it is can always turn into telling it like it will be.

There's a discomfitingly anticipatory scene in O: a lingering close-up on hapless sad-sack Roger (the film's Roderigo analogue, played by Elden Henson), who sits blinking back tears at a pep rally while a pair of cool-kid tyrants sitting behind him lean in, swatting his ears and hissing "faggot," as sweet, pitying Desi protests ineffectually in the background. "Cruelty is a function of high school," Nelson says of this scene. "Either in response to that cruelty or a function of that cruelty, teenagers—who can now get hold of guns more easily than ever—are killing each other."

Illustration by Anthony Freda

A demonstrated concern for verisimilitude is a built-in defense against any controversy O might court once audiences can see it. This one-size-fits-all rebuttal—but it really happened—can guard, however speciously, any movie drawn from true events, ranging from Jonathan Kaplan's superb, similarly beleaguered Over the Edge (see sidebar) to Clark's Bully, which is based on a 1993 murder of a 20-year-old by several of his peers in the Florida Everglades.

Where O's focus on realism perhaps comes into question is in placing a black character at the center of a lily-white phenomenon. (For what it's worth, Nelson is white and screenwriter Kaaya is black.) Hugo and Roger are undoubtedly the film's Harris-Klebold surrogates, but Odin's rapid mutation—from sweet-natured big man on campus to fire-breathing rapist—brushes against stereotypes of black male sexual potency, rage, and aggression. Granted, this is always a problem in adapting Othello, but what is Othello doing in a Jonesboro or Pearl scenario anyway?

"Is it tragic and predestined because he's black and all black characters, if they're assimilated into a white society, end up doing violence—is that the point? Probably not," says Nelson. "Is it about how a society will refuse to allow an infiltration of an 'other,' and it will conspire to turn that figure into what it most fears? That's closer to what Shakespeare was getting at." As Nelson has it, Odin is the ultimate outsider in the high school inferno.

Earlier this year, after Miramax had sold the film's license to Lions Gate, O's producers filed suit against Miramax, arguing that the company had broken its distribution agreement by sitting on the film for so long. The suit was settled in June; Nelson can't discuss details because of a confidentiality agreement, but he stresses that "Miramax never interfered with me creatively."

Though O addresses a teenage phenomenon, Nelson explains, "I didn't want to pander to teenagers. Perhaps that's caused some trouble for O, because it's hard to get people in their twenties and thirties to come see a movie that's set in high school—they think, Oh, it's just another teen movie. It's also rated R, so it's cutting away everyone under 17 as well. Well, who's gonna go see the movie? I dunno," Nelson says with a laugh. "And I guess I don't care. Once I saw the check print of the movie in March of last year, I let it go. And it really didn't make much difference to me if it ended up on one screen or a thousand."

Research assistance: Jacob Blecher and Sasha Statman-Weil

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